The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables (review)
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Reviewed by
Vargas Llosa, Mario. The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables. Trans. John King. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. Pp. 196. ISBN 978-0-691-13111-5

This discerning study of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables by a distinguished novelist who understands first-hand the complexities of the craft of fiction is not only critically acute, it also makes an eloquent case for the power of fiction to create a world that allows the reader to live "the impossible." Novels, Vargas Llosa writes, exist for this reason, "[. . .] because we have only one life, and our desires and fantasies demand a thousand lives" (173). Fiction gives shape and meaning to the chaos of history that surrounds us, not to replicate that world, but to create one that is more real than the "high security prison" we live in. Coming of age in a post-Flaubertian world, he asks why a novel like Les Misérables - with its underlying faith in Divine justice, its interminable authorial digressions, its Manichean treatment of character, its excessive theatricality, and, above all, its commanding, omnipresent narrator who interrupts the plot at every turn to tell the reader what to think - why it is that such an expansive, slow-moving work with epic and encyclopedic aspirations can retain the same "freshness and enchantment" today it once had for a lonely boy who read it for the first time in a dreary military school in the mountains of Peru. Those of us who have introduced students to long novels infused with the cultural myths of a different time have wondered the same thing and been moved to witness their thrill of discovery as they are drawn into the other World of these texts.

Vargas Llosa asks in what way such fiction has the power to subvert the social order, as Lamartine warned it would in his attack on the utopian promise offered by Les Misérables in 1862: "The most homicidal and the most terrible passion that one can inspire in the masses is the passion for the impossible." By borrowing the words of this quote for his own epigraph and title, Vargas Llosa recognizes that Hugo's contemporary was dealing "head-on with the function of fiction in history." Like Lamartine he believes that the creative imagination can be a powerful agent for social change, but he draws far more optimistic conclusions. "All successful fiction [. . .] through its persuasive power [. . .] transports readers into a world that is more coherent, more beautiful [. . .] or simply less miserable than the one they inhabit" (171), and ends his study saying "Les Misérables is one of the works that has been most influential in making so many men and women of all languages and cultures desire a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one they live in." If dictatorships or religious dogmatists still believe they must censure such works today, then the novel, he concludes, is not a dying genre.

In thus advocating the transformative power of fiction, Vargas Llosa challenges critics who would attack Hugo for ignoring or distorting the facts of history. Novels free themselves from the moment in history in which their roots are sunk to offer an image of a world that is "deeper and more permanent than that of historical reality" (141). To make his point, he focuses his analysis on the episode of the insurrection at the barricade of La Chanverie, one of those he calls the three "active craters" that arbitrarily bring all of the key actors together in a deadly struggle for survival (the ambush in the Gorbeau tenement and the pursuit of Jean Valjean through the sewers of Paris being the other two). He sees these "magnets of fate" as paradigmatic of the novel as a whole. [End Page 359] Hugo, Vargas Llosa acknowledges, never makes clear the facts that motivated the Insurrection of 1832, but considers the lack of historical precision not only irrelevant, but a key to the novel's power today. Hugo dissolves the ideological differences of the rebels (Bonapartists, Legitimists, Republicans, amongst others) into a "utopian haze that is so general...that it represents everyone and no one." The...


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